I teach therefore I dress: Fashioning the Academic

I wanted to take this opportunity to acknowledge the recent passing away of Louise Wilson, the enigmatic course director of MA Fashion at Central Saint Martins This ‘formidable’ professor was known for her passionate but sometimes challenging approach to teaching fashion, which I think is described best by Wilson herself in an interview on ShowStudio in 2012.

I strongly recommend listening to Wilson talk about her own educational experience studying fashion at Central Saint Martins, her views on the shifting political landscape of higher education and the value of studying as a transformative process which can often be a tough journey for both teachers and students.  It was perhaps this last point that meant Wilson was able to push those she taught to find their own voice, as evidenced in an alumnus list that includes Roksanda Ilincic, Alexander McQueen, Hussein Chalayan and Christopher Kane.

Still from ShowStudio interview with Wilson on 15 February 2012

Watching Wilson in the interview, I was struck by her uniform of black dress, her poise and the steadiness of her hands clasped together.  Her choice of dress was, as Wilson explained in Vogue, a consideration of her scholarly identity as wearing black gave her the opportunity to  avoid being singled out by others.  Conversely, it seems that the decision to maintain a particular uniform also lent authority to her role as tutor/teacher, as well as her strong views on the purpose of education.  This reflection upon the way in which dress can impact upon our role as teacher/educator resonated with a comment I heard at a recent workshop on learning development in higher education when the presented referred to the power of performativity in dress when engaging with students.  Both make a valid point – clothing plays an important role in the negotiation of our various identities, which in this case is our scholarly one, and perhaps it is this recognition that contributed a small role in making Wilson such an inspiring tutor. 

As someone who works across two universities, and who encounters both students and staff in a variety of contexts, I am in constant negotiation with clothing as a way to define both my roles and my responsibilities.  For example, in one university, I am categorised as an academic member of staff who works within an art and design department so I have free rein over how I present myself sartorially.  However, in the other institution, I belong to a senior professional services staff team who support students studying predominantly science and business subjects.  The dress code is more formalised, or uniformed, and for me, the hardest to negotiate in terms of my own educational identity.  Interestingly, there is often no formal dress policy within universities so these signs of uniformity are arguably individually and socially generated.

I am currently developing a research project into the dress of academic staff and would be very grateful for any reading suggestions, theoretical angles, everyday observations or possible volunteers.







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  • Clodagh Deegan May 21, 2014 10.24 am

    A Costume Design Tutor & practioner friend was in the shop Cos one day with a former student, and the former student said “Oh my God, it’s like every art teacher I ever had in here”(I agree)

  • Emma May 21, 2014 11.27 am

    Interesting observation – thank you! In my experience, I’ve found the dress of teachers at university so variable yet there are perhaps patterns where the Cos look arguably comes into its element. Actually, I’ve avoided Cos as a place to buy clothes because for me I associate it with the dress of designers, not teachers!

  • Natalie May 22, 2014 06.23 am

    Interesting topic! I’m a medical science academic and I’m forever trying to find a happy medium between my desire to enjoy fashion and express myself in my dress and the unspoken rules of image in my faculty.

  • Andrea May 22, 2014 05.41 pm

    Here’s an observation which I have cherished for years:

    A close friend of mine is a librarian at one of the Ivy League universities here in the U.S. On having listened to her colleagues complain at length about how the librarians weren’t treated with the respect that they felt they deserved, she observed that the first thing they could do was stop dressing like bag ladies.

    In part her frustration with her colleagues stemmed from having herself made a significant effort to learn how to dress well (as well having made a a significant expenditure – she is a very small, fine-boned woman and has a very hard time finding clothes.)

    In slightly different context, another good friend who teaches anthropology at a small liberal arts college told a colleague that attempting to establish credibility with one’s students by dressing like them was a mistake. My friend’s feeling was that it was more credible to dress one’s age and station. Credibility in this case was seen as part of establishing authority.

  • Emma May 23, 2014 03.11 am

    Brilliant story – thanks for that! I admire your friend!

  • Emma May 23, 2014 03.13 am

    Thanks for this – it would be great to get in touch at a later date about my project as I would love to talk to academics from a range of subjects as I think this has a fascinating bearing on our scholarly identity!

  • Jill June 04, 2014 10.38 am

    Hi Emma,

    Thought I would pass along an article on costume designer Jane Greenwood (who will receive a lifetime Tony Award this year)–which includes a quote by playwright Richard Greenberg, who comments favorably on her personal clothing choices: ““She doesn’t do that neutral uniform costume designer thing.”


  • Emma June 04, 2014 01.50 pm

    Hi Jill,
    Thanks so much for this – very apt and perfect material for my emerging Phd proposal!


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